A valentine to Hollywood it’s not. “Mank” marks David Fincher’s return to the two-hour movie after a sojourn in Netflix series television. His 11th feature film came about when content execs Ted Sarandos and Cindy Holland asked their “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter” creator if he had something he’d always wanted to do.
It turns out he’d kept his father’s Jack’s script for “Mank” in the trunk for decades. (Jack Fincher died in 2003.) Fincher dusted off the movie, which tells the controversial backstory of how one-time MGM screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz wrote “Citizen Kane” for RKO and New York wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke), and had to fight to get screen credit. (They shared the film’s only Oscar in 1942.)
Any self-respecting cinephile will revel in this gloriously mounted black-and-white flashback to the Golden Age of Hollywood, where the wittiest Algonquin writers slummed for the likes of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore). Fincher and company purposely created a movie that looks, sounds, and feels like a movie made more than 70 years ago. Some movie fans will go along for the ride, while others will be shut out from accessing the movie’s manifold charms.
Production design, cinematography, and costumes are first-rate, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver a soaring orchestral score with ominous shades of Hitchcock fave Bernard Herrmann, whom Welles credited with 50 percent of the success of “CItizen Kane.”
The audience most likely to appreciate that craftsmanship is senior Academy voters who love their TCM. While the initial social media response is upbeat, Film Twitter is salivating for nutritious movies right now. It’s a pity that with all its stunning production values, “Mank” will likely be sampled, for the most part, online.
Stealing the show are two star performers, recent Oscar-winner Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”), who did not rely on makeup for this protean verbal performance, and Amanda Seyfried (“Les Miserables”) as actress Marion Davies. She was the clever hostess at San Simeon and the alluring partner of the California castle’s owner, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). He inspired Welles’ Charles Foster Kane and the Xanadu that engulfed his reedy opera singer wife, Susan Alexander Kane.
Fincher and Oscar-winner Eric Roth worked over the script, pulling back, according to Fincher’s interview with New York Magazine, on the senior Fincher’s anger at Welles. (Roth takes a producer credit.) Instead, the movie digs into a more timely political message about how media can manipulate the public with false narratives. Mayer and his lieutenant Irving B. Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) orchestrated propaganda to sink the 1934 Democratic gubernatorial candidate, socialist novelist Upton Sinclair, at the polls. While Liberal cognoscenti in the Academy may respond to this narrative in an election year, how that subplot will play for a mainstream audience, on Netflix or in theaters, is anyone’s guess.
What many in the Academy will relate to is the desire of a washed-up artist to do his best work, free from interference. The movie does not delve into the hideous details of how Hearst dive-bombed RKO’s release of “Citizen Kane.” Or how Mankiewicz drank himself into an early grave at 55. But actors are sure to appreciate Seyfried’s sharp woman of the world, who lets her Brooklyn accent fly with Mank, along with Oldman’s meticulous and moving performance as a self-destructive drinker and gambler who’s tired of playing court jester and wants to believe in himself again. “I should have done something by now,” he says.
Remember that Oscar voters have a weakness for backstage movies about show business, from “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “All About Eve” to the more recent “The Artist” (also in black-and-white), “La La Land,” and “Birdman.” They may laud two-time directing Oscar nominee Fincher for his audacious derring-do. Or not.
“Mank” hits select theaters on November 13 and Netflix on December 4.